How many times in your life have you made a health and fitness goal or New Years’ resolution?
How many times have you hit that goal on the mark?
Probably not as many times as you would like. It’s common for most humans to have a history of repeated attempts at various life goals. The yo-yo diet of goal setting can be disheartening at best, self-loathing at worst.
Goal setting for health and fitness is not only one of the most common types of goals, but I will argue it’s also the most complicated because, for many of us, it’s not a lack of education about fitness or nutrition that prevents us from succeeding it’s our habits.
We know we need to move more and eat healthier foods; it’s the doing it part and sticking to it that’s hard. If someone asked you which was healthier a doughnut or an apple, you know the answer, but which choice would you make is the question.
Fortunately, while humans have repeatedly been trying to goal set for health and fitness as modern life gets more sedentary and fast food more abundant, science has discovered some interesting stuff about how our brains work when it comes to behavior change.
Thank you, science.
While you can use the scientific findings for many aspirations, in this article, I’ll focus mostly on goal-setting for health and fitness goals. When it comes to goals, many people incorrectly set goals or make vague resolutions that steer them to a quick defeat.
F5 is a Strength and Muay Thai Gym. Our primary goal is for our students to get stronger and learn the skill and techniques of Muay Thai. The majority of our students come to us with these goals as their main focus.
However, some of our students do have body composition goals, so let’s take a classic example of fat loss to explain goal setting. It’s a goal most people are familiar with, and many can relate to.
First, it’s essential to distinguish between outcome goals (results desired) and behavioral or action goals (habits).
OUTCOME GOAL: “Lose ten pounds”.
ACTION GOALS: Eating more veggies, eating protein with each meal, getting to the gym three times per week, controlling meal portions, making room for recovery practices, drinking more water, prioritizing sleep, lowering sugar intake, etc.
There are many different behaviors, i.e., habits that one must achieve to succeed in the outcome goal. You’ll notice that the action goal list is much longer. Where do you start?
You’ve probably heard about S.M.A.R.T. goal setting, which, of course, is important, but also pretty basic.
- S = Specific
- M = Measurable
- A = Achievable
- R = Realistic
- T = Time-based
What you may not have dug into is the scientific data of habits and how the finding can help rocket launch your goal setting skills.
Let’s get science-y! Here’s my five top goal setting tips.
#1 CHOOSE ONE SIMPLE NEW HABIT AT A TIME
When people first start an exercise program, they are usually really amped to tackle it all. They want to get up earlier, sleep more, eat better, exercise regularly, and remember to take their vitamins.
What usually happens is the brain tries to tackle all these things at once, and in a few days or weeks, it gets wholly overloaded and shuts down. Long term progress requires careful planning and patience.
Once your brain gets burnt out on striving for these new habits, your willpower depletes and your back comfortable old habits like staying up late watching, TV, going to happy hour instead of the gym, or getting fast food at the drive-through instead of grocery shopping.
Most people’s brains can handle one new habit at a time. If you are a habit ninja, maybe two small ones, but it’s better to set yourself up for success by narrowing your focus.
Once you have the new habit in place, go ahead and conquer another one that leads you closer to your outcome goal.
For some people, a simple new habit can take just a few days to form, if they plan correctly to repave the patterns of their brain. Others may need more time; it means giving up an old habit that is deeply rooted.
Start with the simplest habit first. It will give you a win right away and motivate you to accomplish more.
When someone us trying to pay off debt, for example, it’s a standard advice from financial experts to spay off the smallest debt first. Start with the $300 in parking tickets, then move on to the $750 credit card, then chip away at those student loans.
Similarly, taking the earlier weight loss outcome goal example, if you are trying to lose ten pounds, currently have a poor diet, lack adequate sleep, and don’t exercise, you’d do best with choosing the area where you think you’ll have the most success.
Say you decide that out of the three areas of change, you want to start exercising. You focus solely on getting to the gym three times per week without trying to change your sleeping patterns or eating habits.
You might need to address these areas later, as they are important to your outcome goal of weight loss, but one step at a time.
However, what might happen is that by focusing on your first, simple behavior goal, you’ll naturally be more inclined to make healthier choices.
You may go to bed earlier (from sheer exhaustion), make better choices for lunch (because you are more in tune with your body’s needs), and maybe even cut down on drinking; because you have less time in the week to do so.
But, by not telling yourself to focus on all these areas and just concentrating on the exercise part, you will take the pressure off and conserve precious brainpower.
I call this phenomenon the good habit trickle-down effect.
However, it can also work in reverse. If you adopt a harmful habit, like skimping on sleep, it can spur other less desirable habits, like mainlining coffee and donuts for breakfast.
#2 FRAME ACTION GOALS IN THE POSITIVE
Habits form unconsciously and are acted on automatically. These locked-in behavior patterns can help and hurt us. Because we perform our set habits without having to work at it, it frees up space in our brains to focus on other things.
Habit formation for energy conservation is just one way humans are incredible at being efficient, a trait that doesn’t necessarily help us when it comes to fitness goals.
When people think of fitness goals, they often think about what poor habits they want to break.
- Eat less sugar
- Cut back on drinking
- Stop eating fast food
- Don’t give up!
When our brain focuses on quitting a habit, it’s much harder to accomplish than adding behavior, or better yet, replacing an old habit with a new way of doing things.
Instead of dwelling on what you should remove from your life, think about what you can add that would be helpful to your goal.
Focus your energy on the positive additions:
Eat less sugar—> Eat more protein at each meal (satiety) Cut back on drinking—> Go to the gym after work (vs. happy hour) Stop eating fast food—> Meal prep 1x week for quick on-hand food (accessibility) Don’t give up!—> Tell yourself to “keep going” (reframing self-talk)
#3 IDENTIFY YOUR CUE
When choosing what positive new habit to focus on, the best actions are one that you can do when there is a visual, auditory, or time of day cue to triggers the behavior. When you know the prompt, you can choose the replacement habit with more accuracy.
Let’s say you know that overeating sugar is your biggest nutrition culprit. Every day on your lunch break, you have a sandwich or salad and then usually head to the vending machine or coffee shop for a treat.
Your cue in this sense would be “after lunch” if you did this even on weekend lunches, or “on lunch break at work” if you only indulged in a cupcake at work.
You decide to bring a piece of fruit with you to lunch, and when you felt the sweet craving, go for the fruit instead.
Let’s take another example. Say you realized that snacking on chips was a colossal pitfall to your fitness. You journaled about and realized that every time you watched Law and Order, your favorite show on TV, you ate a whole bag of chips even though you weren’t really hungry.
Now that you are more aware of your behavior, you can decide to keep your hands busy some other way by learning knitting and knit while you watch your favorite shows.
#4 NAME YOUR REWARD
Humans love rewards and prizes. Every unconscious habit we have has a reward attached to it. The more satisfying the reward, the harder the pattern is to break.
If we can isolate what that reward is, we can choose new habits that give us a similar payoff.
Let’s say you have a habit of drinking vodka martinis after work. You have identified the cue of getting home as your trigger. But why do you drink the martini, to begin with? Upon arriving home, are you stressed from work and want to relax, or are you lonely and want someone to talk to, and your martini is a replacement for connection? Maybe you indulge in the martinis because your partner is drinking martinis, and you crave spending time with your significant other.
Let’s say your reason is stress. Everyone needs ways of coping with stress and reducing stress. Drinking in moderation for some people can be a healthy way of socializing with others to relieve stress. However, if you have identified that drinking martins every night after work is standing between you and your fitness goals (or other desired achievements), you’ll want to find a replacement habit that gives you the same reward.
Luckily, exercise can give many benefits that drinking and other mind-altering chemicals offer.
Working out can lower stress, increase energy, raise confidence, and offer social benefits if you exercise in group classes with a supportive community.
Make sure the new habits you are choosing to focus on offering a reward to your brain that is meaningful. If you are getting something positive from the new habit, and in my experience, if you don’t continually remind yourself of the benefits, you are unlikely to stick with it.
#5 MAKE HABITS EASIER TO ACHIEVE WITH LIFE HACKS
Set yourself up for success with small productivity tricks. If you make your behavioral goal simple to carry out, you’ll be on to the next habit in no time.
- Workout 3 x week = Set our work out clothes the night before.
- Drink 10 x 8 oz glasses of water daily = Set an alarm in your phone for every 20 mins at work.
- Eat 4 x veggie servings per day = Buy raw veggies like carrots, snap peas, and cherry tomatoes to take on the go.
- Sleep 7-8 hours per night = Power down electronics one hour before bedtime.
Notice that each “hack” is a small action, a “mini habit,” if you will.
Goal achieving is about stacking each new healthy habit upon another until you are armed with a giant toolbox of automatic actions that make success look easy.
Start with the smallest actions possible if you need to. Build your skills and confidence along the way with each new health habit you form, and you’ll be crushing those fitness goals in no time!
x Coach Roxy
SOURCES AND RECOMMENDED READING
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath